Interior to Formally Move Ahead with NPR-A Lease Sale

The Bureau of Land Management plans to formally announce a Sept. 27 lease sale tomorrow for sections of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, including tracts environmentalists and congressional critics say should remain off-limits to oil and gas development.

A notice to be published in tomorrow's Federal Register says the planned Sept. 27 sale will encompass portions of the reserve's 4.6 million acre northeast section approved for development earlier this year. This area includes regions around Teshekpuk Lake that were unavailable in past sales and are considered critical for molting geese and other animals.

The sale will also include other tracts in the NPR-A's northeast section previously offered in 1999 and 2002 that did not receive bids, and tracts from leases issued after the 2002 sale that have been relinquished by lessees, the upcoming notice states. The sale will also include tracts from the reserve's northwest planning area offered two years ago that did not receive bids.

A BLM spokesman this week said the sale will encompass over 8 million acres. Bids must be received at BLM's Alaska state office in Anchorage by late in the afternoon of Sept. 22, the notice states. The bureau has said the northeast area may contain 2 billion barrels of recoverable oil and around 3.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

The administration's leasing plan for the area is controversial. A final decision early this year opens nearly 400,000 acres of the northeast section that were off-limits under prior administrations. Environmentalists worry that development will fragment and damage areas around Teshekpuk Lake that are home to migratory birds, caribou and other species.

But the administration says it has provided a host of important leasing limitations to protect sensitive areas, including hundreds of thousands of acres of "goose molting areas" and caribou habitat areas that are subject to so-called no surface occupancy restrictions that bar permanent facilities other than pipelines.

Still, critics call the protections inadequate. And the recent pipeline corrosion problems that forced the partial shutdown of BP's Prudhoe Bay field, which sits on a North Slope area east of the NPR-A, are also providing critics fresh ammunition. Brian Moore of the National Audubon Society cited the failure to prevent the problems in criticizing the upcoming sale.

"Instead the industry can only pay attention to opening new unspoiled and unproven areas," Moore said.

The leasing plan has also been under fire from some House and Senate lawmakers who say the administration is endangering sensitive habitat areas. This month, a bipartisan group of 66 House members urged Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne not to lease areas north and east of Teshekpuk Lake (Greenwire, Aug. 7.). And a group of Senate Democrats led by New Mexico's Sen. Jeff Bingaman earlier this summer offered similar criticisms (Greenwire, July 3).

But an Aug. 3 response letter to Bingaman from BLM Director Kathleen Clarke defends the leasing plan, citing provisions such as the no surface occupancy areas, wildlife studies, deferred leasing in the "Colville River Special Area" until a river management plan is completed and others. She says restrictions will provide "maximum protection" of surface resources.

The overall 23-million-acre petroleum reserve was first set aside in the 1920s. The total area is estimated to contain between 5.9 billion to 13.2 billion barrels of oil, according to BLM.

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